Analysis: Aid Worker Job Specs in the Network Age

2013•08•16 IRIN

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The evolving humanitarian field, with multiple new actors, an ongoing IT-led information explosion, and a growing focus on accountability and coordination is reshaping the role of aid workers and the future skills they will need.

Volunteer high-tech groups working on crisis mapping or smartphone communications, diaspora groups, corporations and citizens are some of the latest entrants into aid work, which is becoming ever more complex as a result of the challenges (sometimes combined) of climate change, conflict and access, among others.

“Local and international humanitarian workers alike will need to have better language skills, cultural sensitivity and political acumen to be able to work in these contexts,” said Elizabeth Ferris, senior fellow and co-director at the Washington-based Brookings-London School of Economics project on internal displacement.

In future, governments and civil society groups will become more important actors in conflict or disaster-hit areas, and if they depend on international donors they will need such skills as “accessing international funds, monitoring and evaluation, coordination, learning the ‘jargon’ and ways of working of the international system”, she explained.

And if their funding source is local they will need to learn “public fundraising and coordination as well as project management”.

The diversity of actors in humanitarian assistance would make “issues of coordination even more important and even harder to attain than they are today”, Ferris told IRIN, noting that in the US the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy — the most destructive in the 2012 Atlantic hurricane season — drew huge assistance that the local government in New Jersey was unable to coordinate.

“Some groups got a lot of immediate assistance, some groups were ignored, some communities used social media to direct attention. Traditional actors like the Red Cross, while big players, appeared slow and bureaucratic in their approach,” she said.

In a bid to better respond to disasters, UN and non-UN aid organizations have adopted the cluster system in which aid groups involved in a particular area of humanitarian need work together, has for instance led to more specialized roles for relief workers.

Michael VanRooyen, director of Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, noted that over the years humanitarian roles and job titles have “become more specific, in that large organizations are looking for more specific positions for advocacy, women’s rights and gender programming and other specialized titles and roles”, he told IRIN.

Information explosion

On the other hand, the information network age, which has revolutionized communications, is upending traditional structures of humanitarian organizations. Billions of people across the globe are connecting and sharing massive amounts of information. There were more than six billion mobile phone subscriptions in 2012, including over a billion smart phones, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said in a 2012 study.

“More analysts will be needed, strategic planners, innovation managers and risk managers. We’ll need to be better at basic IT and communications.”

“It calls for more diverse and bottom-up forms of decision-making — something that most governments and humanitarian organizations were not designed for,” the study said.

“Systems constructed to move information up and down hierarchies are facing a new reality where information can be generated by anyone, shared with anyone and acted on by anyone.”

The deluge of information in a networked world is meaningful only when analysed, OCHA reckons and says information and communication should be seen as a basic need, requiring better information sharing, data management and analysis as well as robust guidelines for information use. Language, computer and statistical skills will be key.

For VanRooyen, “tech platforms for data management and data sharing will become increasingly important and use and sharing of these data will be an essential skill.

“Job skills will require the combination of technical sector based knowledge, combined with the essential skills of management, finance, leadership and areas specific to a region such as an understanding of rights, access, protection etc.,” he said.

In future, “more analysts will be needed, strategic planners, innovation managers and risk managers. We’ll need to be better at basic IT and communications,” said Andy Thow, a humanitarian affairs officer with OCHA in New York.

OCHA’s Communications with Communities Global Coordinator, Imogen Wall, however, argued that “new technology goes hand in hand with traditional skills. Communications, negotiations, engaging communities, journalistic and language skills are going to be equally important.”

The Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action found in a 2012 study that evaluations consistently showed that NGO and UN agency staff are perceived to be lacking language and local context knowledge of a disaster-hit region or country.

More partnerships

As information technology brings more players into humanitarian assistance, traditional actors such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, the UN and others will need to forge partnerships with the new entrants to improve aid delivery, while an increasingly connected and informed world will spur greater demand for accountability by aid recipients, the observers said.

“The humanitarian model at the moment is a command-and-control one. One of the hallmarks of the network age is the move from a one-to-many to many-to-many organization,” said Wall. “We are going to have to learn to work much better with the private sector, especially in-country private sector as well as working better with diaspora groups.”

She argued that communities are becoming more aware of what they see as successful humanitarian interventions and as such “community relations skills and everything to do with closer relationship between affected communities and responders will be more and more important.”

Understanding and adopting better models and best practices to help communities withstand disasters, investment in economic recovery, collaborating with local partners, governments or civil society will be critical for aid organizations to remain relevant in a changing humanitarian sphere.

“Building effective and intelligent local workforces will be key to sustained engagement,” said VanRooyen.

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This post appears courtesy of IRIN as part of their “Humanitarian Futures” series. IRIN is the humanitarian news and analysis service of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Copyright © IRIN 2013.

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IRIN humanitarian news and analysis is a service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.